WYTHE COUNTY, Va., May 2, 2012 — When defining the people of Appalachia, the discussion usually becomes about what the people are not rather than what they are. Since “discovering” the centuries old culture in the early 1900’s, the rest of America has been fed a steady diet of negative stereotypes of the people of this region.
Beginning May of 2012, a new project called “Hollow: An Interactive Documentary,” in McDowell County, W.Va. will begin to gather data, solicit local input, and facilitate community involvement in an effort to present a more accurate portrayal of the region’s true identity.
This project is the vision of documentary filmmaker Elaine McMillion, a West Virginia native who sees the migration of jobs and population away from the region as a national symptom, shared by the decline of small working class communities in general, regardless of their location.
In 1950, at its height, McDowell County, West Virginia had over 100,000 residents. It was a solid community with a vibrant middle class. Over the next 60 years, the coal industry moved out, taking jobs and a sustaining tax base with it. In 2010 the population had shrunk to just 22,000, with 32.6% living below the poverty level.
Appalachia has seen a long series of booms and busts, so it’s not surprising the current statistics are so alarming. McDowell County is an extreme example of what happens to small towns when jobs and industry leave, and what choices are left for the communities as a result.
Beginning this month, the project will disseminate cameras to local residents and facilitate the process of telling their own stories. “We want to create a space for people to reflect on the past, the present, and gaze into the future,” McMillion said.
The simple act of providing like-minded residents a place to interact may prove to be the most important result of the project. The opportunity to network and pool resources has been met with an enthusiasm reflected in an ever growing base of local and regional participation.
The culmination of the project will be an interactive and dynamic website created with the content gathered and told by local participants. It will allow people to tell their stories, map data, and invite ongoing participation in addressing the identity and problems of the region.
As one can imagine, in the current economic environment, funds for projects like this are few and far between. Nonetheless, the project has raised more than half of the $25,000 needed to complete it. They still have to raise a little more than $10,000 dollars by May 13 to keep the project going.
The goal of “Hollow” is to accurately portray the region and collectively identify the hurdles it must overcome to thrive again. For a region so misunderstood, it is a golden opportunity to dispel the myths and help everyone realize the obstacles facing Appalachia are not that much different from the obstacles faced all across America.
Whether it is the depletion of natural resources in West Virginia, or the closing of auto manufactoring plants in Michigan, the result is still the same. A community, once vital and productive, is forced to choose between staying and dealing with the impending poverty or hastening its death by leaving for more economically promising horizons.
The common wisdom is to go where the work is and don’t look back. Just write off the death of your hometown as a casualty of the shift in America’s basic economic structure from industrial to service.
On the internet one can find a plethora of articles written by “experts,” who explain why it happens, along with the appropriate economic theory to back it up. They will even explain it as it is happening to prove how right they are, insisting nothing can be done about it.
Not only do they want the people to go quietly, they supply tidy rationalizations that are fed to and accepted by the public that portray anyone who doesn’t go along as unrealistic and backwards. I think one can assume experts are overrated in light of the current state of the American economy.
Maybe the dialogue created by “Hollow” holds an answer. Then again maybe it does not. But just maybe, the people of Appalachia can find a way to work within the current structure to network, combine resources, and breathe new life into small town America. The least they deserve is a chance.
People can help make the “Hollow” project a reality with donations.
This is the first in a series of columns that will follow the progress of “Hollow.”
This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.